In a nondescript office building on M Street in downtown Washington, three Republican policy wonks have spent the past three months debating how to revive their party. One of them worked on Mitt Romney’s campaign—the bid that failed even though the incumbent botched his first debate and presided over a weak economy with unemployment around 8 percent—and no one wants to repeat the bitterness of that defeat.
After the GOP postelection ritual of grieving and recrimination, this trio decided that much of the problem lies not with voters or pollsters or the timing of conventions, as some Republicans have suggested, but with the party itself. “This is probably the most serious threat to the Republican Party since I’ve been involved with it,” says Peter Wehner, one of the thinkers and a former top official in the past three GOP administrations. And if Republicans can’t address it, strategists fear, they’ll fail to retake the Senate in 2014, lose the presidential race in 2016, and consign themselves to rule only the House of Representatives, sparring endlessly with Democrats in power.
Much of the difficulty, as Wehner and his colleagues see it, boils down to Republican economic beliefs that have moved too far away from what most people care about. “We’re not talking enough about the problems that affect the lives of everyday Americans,” says Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center alongside Wehner and their colleague James Capretta. “What do our ideas have to do to address this moment?”
Addressing voters’ financial worries will be key to Republicans’ future electoral success. In the 2012 election, President Obama beat Romney, in part, by promoting policies that voters overwhelmingly thought would boost the fortunes of the middle class. In battleground states, Obama’s plans were seen as more middle-class-friendly by a margin of 17 points, 56 percent to 39 percent, according to an analysis of exit polling by the group Resurgent Republicans.
But party intellectuals fear that Republicans in power have not introduced enough ideas that middle-class people like, such as ways to reform education, boost wages, shrink the high cost of a college degree, or create more jobs in a weak labor market. That’s because another faction of the Republican Party, represented by the majority of House Republicans, believes that the party’s problem is just bad messaging, not a policy failure. By that logic, there’s no reason not to focus on reducing the size of government, overhauling the tax code, drastically shoring up Medicare, or taming the deficit—all of which the House Republicans’ budget blueprints have proposed. But those ideas at first glance aren’t the ones that drive average voters, says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Fiscal responsibility has to be couched in terms of which policies are better for the great American middle class,” he says. Only then will voters be able to hear the way the philosophical core of the GOP relates to their everyday lives. “Most Americans, not just Republicans, believe that America should not just spend money it does not have,” Ayres adds.
Ultimately, the goals of smaller government and middle-class support may be in conflict. How can the Republican Party show middle-class voters it cares about them and push solutions that may take away some of the government benefits they receive through tax breaks or Medicare? This is the core dispute inside the party as it looks toward 2016. Do Republicans need to introduce new economic policies to appeal to a broader swath of voters, as the party intellectuals propose? Or do they simply need to tweak their message while GOP lawmakers in power stick to their traditional issues: cutting government spending, shrinking the federal government, and reforming the tax code?
This conflict was prominently on display recently at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s speech, about innovation, energy, and education, received a polite reception. But Rep. Paul Ryan’s impassioned address about the debt won over the crowd—an indication that the party still favors an approach that many voters don’t.
There’s little indication the GOP will resolve this dispute about economic branding until it settles on its next presidential candidate. Until then, most House Republicans are jonesing for fights over the debt ceiling and tax reform. Party strategists, intellectuals, and some members such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, meanwhile, want to paint a softer side to the party and speak to a wider constituency. “The core Republican conservative principles of a small, contained government and a reliance on private markets is not going to change and shouldn’t be discarded,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and president of American Action Forum, a conservative think tank. “The missing part of the Republican argument now is, what do you want that smaller, contained government to do on behalf of people? Rather than just telling them what it shouldn’t do, you need to also tell them what the government stands for.”